Huge survey finds social media delivers major blow to Britons’ self-esteem

Woman looking at mobile phone screen
Spending a lot of time on social media has been linked to mental health issues. (Getty Images)

Being perpetually online and scrolling through social media is the norm for many people living in the modern world. This has brought on increasingly complex wellbeing challenges, particularly for young people in Britain, a new report has said.

According to the 2024 STADA Health Report, which surveyed more than 46,000 respondents from 23 countries, including 2,000 from the UK, the younger generation is "grappling with unrealistic beauty standards and feelings of isolation".

The UK’s young adults are concerned about their body image, as well as loneliness and sense of self, all of which have been exacerbated by social media being a part of their everyday lives.

In fact, young Britons are so affected by how social media makes them feel that a significant number of respondents said they would splurge on surgeries and procedures to change the way they look, if they could afford it.

The report, published by global healthcare leader STADA, revealed that social media is "significantly undermining" the self esteem of young women in particular.

Nearly half (45%) of British 18 to 24-year-olds are constantly comparing themselves to influencers they see online, the report said. Of them, 38% of young women said they struggle with low self-worth and that they feel they can’t match the "perfect bodies" they see on their social media feeds.

Damaged female skin with acne
Young women are especially prone to comparing themselves to influencers and celebrities on social media. (Getty Images)

More than a quarter (28%) of young women who took part in the survey said they have been bullied for how they look. The report suggests that this bullying could be driving more than one in 10 (12%) of young women to resort to potentially unhealthy eating habits.

Commenting on the findings, Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at eating disorder charity Beat, said: "It's concerning that more than 1 in 10 young women from this study are struggling with harmful eating habits. Social media often praises certain body types and sizes, which can lead to negative thoughts about body image for those who don't feel they meet these standards.

"This can contribute to dangerous eating disorder thoughts and behaviours if someone is unwell with an eating disorder or vulnerable to developing one. While social media can be a positive space for some, harmful health and weight loss advice is very common online, and young people are often exposed to content that can contribute to an eating disorder developing or worsen an existing eating disorder.

"Eating disorders are complex and there are many different reasons why these mental illnesses can develop, including stressful life events such as grief, abuse or the breakdown of relationships. Psychological factors like low self-esteem or perfectionism can also play a part, as well as genetics.

"Accessing help as soon as possible leads to the best chances of making a full recovery, which is why we urge anybody struggling to speak to a loved one they trust and set up a GP appointment at the earliest opportunity. Charities like Beat are also here to provide advice while you wait for treatment."

However, young women aren’t the only ones who feel bad about themselves while scrolling through social media.

Man at his home in Madrid, Spain
Young men's body image is also affected by social media. (Getty Images)

Young men are also impacted by what they see online. Two-thirds (66%) of young male respondents said they have poor mental health, citing worries about not being tall enough.

The report points out that while social media has been recently celebrating "short kings" - a term for men who are typically 5’8" in height or under - through the rise in popularity of stars like Barry Keoghan and Jeremy Allen White, this doesn’t seem to translate into a real life appreciation for shorter men.

Only 30% of women on dating apps are interested in dating men under 5’11", according to data from Bumble.

STADA’s report also found that men in the UK are starting to worry about losing their hair even at a young age. 34% of 18 to 24-year-old men said they are already worrying about hair loss.

With social media making young people rethink the way they look, as they compare themselves to influencers and celebrities, many said they would consider spending on changing something about their bodies if money were no object.

More than half (58%) said they would splash out on dental work to give themselves a new smile if they could afford it, while a third (31%) of under 34-year-olds said they would consider weight loss surgery.

Nearly 40% of Britons would pay for injectables like Botox and fillers to make themselves look younger, and over a quarter of young adults aged 18 to 34 said they would readily go under the knife for cosmetic procedures.

Nigel Stephenson, general manager at STADA, Thornton & Ross, said: "This year's report has brought to light many shifts in attitudes towards the way we manage our health both as a nation and at a personal level.

"But one of the standout concerns has got to be the clear demonstration of a correlation with significant mental health struggles with almost half of young people in the UK aged 18-24 saying they are comparing themselves to unrealistic standards perpetuated by social media influencers.

"The concern must surely be that this could be storing up even bigger issues in terms of both physical and mental health in the future for older generations to contend with.

"The pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standards is taking a significant toll, particularly on young women. STADA is dedicated to caring for people's health as a trusted partner, and this goes beyond our company. There is clearly work to be done in all quarters in the UK to promote realistic and diverse representations of beauty and provide better mental health resources to help our country’s young people navigate these challenges."

The impact of social media on our wellbeing and mental health has become clearer in recent years, with numerous studies suggesting it can be detrimental.

Last year, a study conducted by the McKinsey Health Institute revealed that people from Generation Z are “more likely than other generations to cite negative feelings about social media”.

The study found that 35% of Gen Z members spent over two hours on social media on a daily basis, compared to 24% of millennials and 14% of baby boomers. The younger generation were most likely to link spending a lot of time scrolling on social media to poorer mental health.

Watch: Dr. Vivek Murthy advises social media health warning for adolescence

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